Getting a big tax refund is supposed to make you feel guilty.
Financial planners say it means you've had too much withheld from your paychecks. You let the government keep your money and failed to collect interest for all those months. You also deprived yourself of the opportunity to earn an even greater return.
Technically, they're right.
In a perfect world, your withholding would be exact, and you and Uncle Sam could just call it even. And you would put all the extra dollars in every paycheck to work instead of waiting for a fat check the following year.
But if you count on a refund, don't feel bad. It doesn't necessarily make you a lousy money manager, especially in these challenging, low-interest-rate times.
Here are five reasons why having more withheld than your expected tax bill can make sense:
1. Avoids a debt trap. Owing taxes can lead to long-term trouble. Taxpayers who are out of work or have other problems often end up with a bill they can't pay right away. Accrued interest and penalties can significantly increase the amount owed.
Tax attorney Lu-Ann Dominguez in Fort Lauderdale says debt can snowball because of insufficient withholding. Many of her clients weren't able to write the IRS a check, so they didn't file. That leads to the world of IRS collections, which can involve tax liens, levies on wages and ruined credit.
2. Provides a welcome windfall. Receiving a cash infusion every spring can provide a much-needed lift. After a year of focusing on living expenses, many taxpayers enjoy having some flexibility. A big check doesn't have to be wasted.
"If they save it, invest it, use it to pay off debt, build their emergency fund, great," says John Rohrbeck, president of Tax & Financial Strategies Inc. in Birmingham, Mich. "But if they spend it on another trip to Disney World or another big-screen TV -- bad idea."
3. Protects against tax surprises. Over-withholding can serve as a buffer against the unknown.
Actions you may not have anticipated when you set your withholding level can result in sizable tax hits. Taking money out of an individual retirement account or 401(k) or selling stock could push your tax return into the red.
4. Forces savings. Using a big refund as forced savings is a lazy but easy way to set money aside.
Personal finance blogger J.D. Roth, editor of the website GetRichSlowly.org, confesses to liking lump-sum windfalls as a way to save. He used the approach for years as what he calls a psychological trick to remove the temptation to spend immediately, putting the annual checks toward savings, debt payments and indulgences he wouldn't otherwise have been able to pay for.
5. Costs little in lost opportunities. The meager interest rates offered by CDs and money-market savings accounts mean you're not missing out on much income by waiting to get your money.
That will change as rates rise, but they have a long way to go. One-year bank certificates of deposit pay an average of 0.34 percent, and money markets average a scant 0.14 percent, according to Bankrate.com.